“Oro buruku toun terin”
That Yoruba adage which, according to my sister, Molara Wood, means that the best way to temper a very serious matter is with laughter, was at play on Tuesday when the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, received in his palace a delegation led by the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Mr Katil Karlsen. The diplomats from EU countries as well as officials of the World Bank and other development partners were in Benin for the second roundtable dialogue on Managing Migration Through Development Programmes (MMDP) organised by the Edo State government. I was also there as one of the participants at the conference where I moderated the session on ‘Beyond legality: Exploring sustainable ways to eradicate human trafficking in Edo State’.
The Oba, who said the sexual exploitation scourge for which Edo is notorious and the battle being fought in the United States and Europe against drug trafficking is similar except for the fact that in the Edo case, the traffickers deal in human beings. “To treat human beings as commodity is totally unacceptable. I have zero tolerance for it” said the Oba, who nonetheless argued that not all the girls are tricked into the business. “We know that some of them have not been tricked. Some of them have been encouraged by their parents to go out and make money for them.”
According to the Benin monarch, fighting the problem involves dealing with several issues, including our porous borders. “Our border is so porous that people just walk across, do their dirty businesses and go back. We therefore want to appeal to the federal government to tighten our borders, so that even when these traffickers want to do carry out their nefarious activities, it will be difficult for them.”
However, after a very moving disquisition on the evil of human trafficking and how the sexual exploitation associated with it debases Edo women, including sharing his varied experiences as Nigerian ambassador first in Sweden and later in Italy, the Oba paused, chuckled and said to his European guests: “You know, it takes two to tango because where there is no demand, there is no supply. We also have information that Europeans are always demanding for our women. Having served in Rome, I know they love our women although I don’t know what they have found…”
The palace erupted: “Oba ghato ‘kpere, Ise!”
From what transpires almost on a daily basis in Nigeria, our capacity to laugh at our problems is perhaps what keeps many of our citizens sane in a society where it sometimes appears as if there is no bottom to the decline. Almost two weeks after a building collapsed in Port Harcourt, some individuals are still trapped in the rubbles. Last weekend, no fewer than 19 children were drowned in Lafiagi, Kwara State, in a familiar story of death on our waterways that has claimed hundreds this year alone. And as the campaigns for the 2019 general election kick off, a cleric who commands huge following is practically touting for money on the pulpit in exchange for political endorsement since his own God grants electoral victories only to very generous (and not ‘stingy’) givers!
Meanwhile, amid all that ail us as a nation, supporters of both President Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar would rather trade banalities on how one cannot go to America while the other is a cloned ‘Jubril from Sudan’. Sadly, the reality of the Nigerian situation, brought to me by varied experiences in the past one week spent in Kaduna, Abuja and Benin, reveals that we have a serious crisis on our hands. Let me start with Abuja.
Last Saturday, we had the 2018 edition of Tabitha Tent, an annual programme of our church, The Everlasting Arms Parish (TEAP) of the Redeemed Christian Church of God which brings together the less privileged of our society to receive food items, clothes and other personal care items. But despite making provision for about 2,500 persons and putting in place what we felt was adequate security, we were overwhelmed by a desperate crowd that forced the gate open and created a stampede that led to some slight injuries and could have resulted in fatalities but for divine intervention.
In putting the issue in perspective last Sunday, Pastor Eva Azodoh said the desperation we saw in the people who came for Tabitha Tent this year should teach us how privileged many of us are. By 9pm last Friday, thousands had already gathered within the vicinity of our church for a programme scheduled for the next day. Many of them slept on bare floor with their children, all in expectation of scoops of rice and a small bottle of groundnut oil that would fetch each of them no more than N3,000. It is this same desperation that pushes many of our compatriots in Edo State to risk everything on the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea.
That essentially is what you get when you create a society where poverty is being increasingly reinforced for a great majority of the people, because of the way we manage our affairs. Yet, the challenge of our country today is not only that population is increasing at a period of dwindling resources but also that even the limited resources are being cornered by a negligible few. Nothing illustrates the inequalities within our society more vividly than the figures from the 2018 third quarter report of the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics on Borrowers from Deposit Money Bank for the past three years (2015, 2016 and 2017).
In 2015, of the 3,026,578 bank borrowers, only 2,048 individuals took N9.365 trillion from the available N13.354 trillion. Meanwhile, 2,860,397 other Nigerians could only make do with loans worth N252.30 billion. The implication is that whereas less than one percent of bank borrowers in our country took over 70 percent of the facilities, which they most often don’t pay back (since AMCON is there to bail them out), about 95 percent of the remaining bank customers could only secure facilities of less than 2 percent! And we all know there are severe consequences when they default on such loans.
In 2016, when 2,332,503 bank customers were involved, the story was worse. While 2,247 fat cats took a whopping N13.127 of the available N16.291 trillions, 2,332,503 unfortunates were offered a miserly N226.51 billion. In 2017, of the available N15.953 trillion for these bank customers, a mere 3,891 of them took facilities of 13.192 trillions while 2,209792 others were left with a paltry N122.37 billion. The summation from the foregoing is that we have created two classes of Nigerians: the extremely rich who represent less than one percent of the population and are ever indulged and the extremely poor who should be within the region of about 70 percent and are at the mercy of the authorities in both the private and public sectors. No society can advance when you create such dichotomies not moderated either by law or social conscience.
This then brings me to Kaduna where I spent last Thursday; first to attend the Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship Board meeting and later, the dinner preceding the second Speaker series titled ‘The Good Society’. The conversation at the dinner moderated by Mr Dele Olojede centred around the theme, ‘How did we get here and where are we heading?’ One of the board members, Ms Kadaria Ahmed set the tone when she spoke to the security situation and the growing ungoverned spaces across the country. She said the Nigerian state has to regain its legitimacy because what we have today is a broken system.
Talking about ungoverned spaces, the Chairman of Zamfara Council of Chiefs and Emir of Anka, Alhaji Attahiru Ahmad, on Tuesday called on the government to grant them permission to carry guns to fight bandits tormenting their domains. “The only power these bandits have over us is that they carry AK 47 rifles while we have nothing except perhaps sometimes when we carry sticks in self-defence and one cannot use that against guns. Apart from the traditional rulers, many of the political office holders and our senior civil servants are traditional title holders and l am confident that if we join hands and with little training, we can be ready to face and defeat the bandits,” he said.
When a reputable traditional ruler advocates such a desperate measure, you know we have a serious matter on our hands and that was the nature of our discussion last Thursday evening in Kaduna. As to be expected in such sessions about Nigeria, the interventions were more of lamentations. But just as we were about to end the dinner, our chairman, Mr Keem Belo-Osagie said he would speak briefly on the place of hope in human development and why we cannot give up on Nigeria. He followed up by sharing ‘five certainties’ that a political science professor at Oxford University told his class at the beginning of their first semester in 1973. Five things the professor was certain would never happen in their lifetimes: A woman would not be the Prime Minister of Britain; an African American would not be president of the United States of America; there would not be racial inclusion (an end to apartheid) in South Africa; East and West Germany would not unite and there would not be an end to communism in Russia.
Turning to the Fellows, Belo-Osagie said: ‘Now go and think of five things you don’t believe will happen in Nigeria and let’s have a conversation about them tomorrow.’
The import of Belo-Osagie’s intervention is that as gloomy as the situation may seem, Nigeria is not a lost cause and I share his optimism. At the dinner organised by the Edo State government on Tuesday evening, Governor Obaseki asked me to propose a toast to the European diplomats. I prefaced my assignment with a joke once shared by former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings about a Nigerian at the immigration point in London who was told his visa had expired. According to Rawlings, the Nigerian replied the British immigration official: “Bloody what! Who gave visa to Mango Park and all your great grand fathers who came to my country?”
While that threw the audience into laughter, Governor Obaseki, in his vote of thanks, said he was painfully touched by a remark made earlier in the day by one of the participants who said many of our youths are desperate to leave our shores because Nigeria has become a mortuary. “That affected me deeply because many of us grew up in a Nigeria that worked. Sadly, we are now in a new phase which also means we have a responsibility to restore what has been lost”, said Obaseki.
The responsibility for that restoration rests on the people in power today and those who seek to displace them come February 2019. Sadly, we are yet to see any indication that they appreciate that fact.
Meanwhile, those who have been making enquiries on how to get copies of my latest book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire’, can contact Joke (0807 319 9967 & 0803 864 4259) in Bookcraft.
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